Category Archives: Gary Clifton

Freedom’s Limit

Henry did the crime all right – and the time. A low rent daytime burglary blundered into violent, horrible murder. In hindsight’s perfection, two lives ended that day. Old Mrs. Winfrey and Henry both were dead as fried chickens, although Henry’s demise would take a few extra years.
+++++ In 1950, Hell and the Pleasant Grove neighborhood in Dallas were synonymous. “Dead broke” was a term as common as “gimme your money or I’ll shoot your ass”. Except Henry had no gun.
+++++His mama was a whore who was never too discreet about plying her trade around Henry from his earliest recollection. But lazy mama couldn’t screw her way out of poverty or even feed Henry from beneath her daily load of drugs, smokes, and booze. Henry could recall going weeks without a single dime. Kid-jobs were scarce. Henry, dumb as a busted back door, nobody would hire him anyway.
+++++ So Henry evolved – germinated – as a thief like most of his peers. He’d broken into a hundred homes in Pleasant Grove – always for poor folks’ valuables which wouldn’t bring a dollar on the street. By sixteen, he’d been arrested five times for juvenile burglary. The Texas penal code is clear. When he reached age seventeen Henry was a fully grown adult. But some things were constant – Mama whored and Henry stole, period.
+++++ Old Mrs. Winfrey walked down to the corner bus stop every Thursday morning and spent the day somewhere. Henry couldn’t have known she always visited her daughter in north Dallas . Henry, in his narrow gauge thinking, didn’t actually see her leave that Thursday. He just assumed – damned bad business in the burglary trade. He slipped the back door lock and was stashing silverware in a pillow case when she walked in. Push came to shove, in spades. Simpleton Henry beat the shrieking old lady’s brains on the kitchen floor with an iron skillet. Witnesses heard the screams and the cops caught Henry a block down, blood-soaked and bathed in sweat. He confessed before they reached the station house.
+++++ A Dallas jury, enraged after examining photos of the bloody gore on Mrs. Winfrey’s kitchen floor, sentenced adult Henry to the electric chair: Old Sparky. Henry languished on death row for twelve years. Texas switched the method of execution to the three needle cocktail, but he was still a dead man.
+++++Then the appellate court, from their seats near the right hand of God, decided Henry was too stupid to execute. “Go figure,” cops said. They commuted his sentence to life, which only meant “life” if he got shanked in the shower.

They moved Henry into the general prison population. An odd sort, not given to social interaction, Henry was allowed out of his cell one half hour daily to sweep out the prison machine shop. He labored there fifteen more years. Henry really never learned to read nor attend prison church services, spending his entire “off” time alone in his six by eight cell. He rarely spoke and among other inmates had not a single friend.
+++++Early on he’d acquired a plastic mayonnaise jar. After he swept the machine shop each day, he began gathering small bits of wire and metal scraps, wedging them into the semi-flexible container. Prison officials examined the jar in his cell. Old harmless Henry, they concluded, was not a threat with his dopey jar of scraps. Perhaps a sort of therapy, they suggested. So they let him keep it.
+++++Then to Henry’s surprise, the prison system told him he was rehabilitated and unceremoniously paroled him. Two thirds of his life in a cage, Henry was dumped back on the street along with his jar of scrap metal bits, new blue jeans, and a ten dollar bill. Mama had long since died of accumulated whore-life ailments. But mama’s elderly sister, Myrtle offered Henry a tiny room in the rear of her Pleasant Grove house.
+++++Henry found the outside world huge beyond comprehension. He spent all day every day in his little room, pacing the few steps back and forth hours on end. In time, Aunt Myrtle urged, then demanded Henry by God seek employment.

In weeks, the issue approached detonation. Each day, despite Aunt Myrtle’s cajoling, Henry found one reason, then another for not venturing out of his room. He was ill or had no work-leads. +++++He’d seek a job the next day he always said and probably actually meant. Then he paced the floor all day.
+++++Early one morning Aunt Myrtle barged into Henry’s small space in a rage. “Look for a job today or out on the street” were the options. In her frenzy, Myrtle slapped Henry, the jostle knocking his jar of scrap off a small bed table. Henry the model prisoner exploded back to Henry the burglar – the stone killer who’d bashed Mrs. Winfrey’s brains all over the kitchen nearly a lifetime before.
+++++In rage born of years of frustration, Henry snatched up the jar and repeated the Mrs. Winfrey routine on Aunt Myrtle’s skull. Breathless and only as remorseful as his dim, sociopath mind would allow, Henry, coated with gore, stood over the body, the murder weapon, still in hand. The violent attack had shattered the plastic into small bits across the floor, but the small remnants of wire and scrap wedged carefully into the container over many years had held their shape perfectly without the confinement of the container. The bits were a steel ball.
+++++Again, screams and noise had alerted neighbors. When the first cops pushed into the room, Henry sat on the floor next to a basically headless Aunt Myrtle, still clutching the blood-soaked, self welded wad of wire. “Put it down, buddy,” the cop ordered, pistol drawn.
+++++But Henry really didn’t hear. He sat, fixated on the wire-ball. “Rehabilitated?” He shouted at his wad of metal. “How does it feel to be free?”